As companies do their part to slow the spread of COVID-19, many employees across the country are working from home for the first time. The situation presents new challenges for everyone, especially considering that shelter-in-place orders gave companies little time to plan for a fully virtual workforce.
It may take more intentional effort, but managers of newly remote employees can still motivate and support their teams from afar. The most effective way to do that is regular communication. Connectivity is key to productivity. Employees who are working at home should have and understand how to use the technologies that enable everyone to stay in touch, and managers should encourage those tools’ frequent use.
Once the basics like technological capabilities are covered, managers should keep these tips in mind to help people work better together even though they’re physically separated:
1. Set Expectations
When circumstances change radically and without much warning, it’s the manager’s job to both provide a clear understanding of the new requirements and give people time to adapt to them. Establish communications guidelines, such as using texting or instant messaging for urgent matters, answering emails within 24 hours and making no unannounced phone calls before and after certain hours of the day. Discourage email threads that include people who are superfluous to the discussion, and instruct colleagues to avoid replying to all recipients unless absolutely necessary.
For projects, describe specific objectives that must be met and actions each team member should take. Establish appropriate reporting structures. This might involve an online form or spreadsheet every member of the team can access in real time, as well as periodic calls that allow each team member to ask questions and report on progress.
2. Use Video
Managers should encourage regular use of a widely available, inexpensive video conferencing tool for meetings, such as Zoom, GoToMeeting or Microsoft Teams. Observing co-workers’ expressions and other visual clues can help identify problems or concerns that may not have been verbally acknowledged yet. Plus, it helps maintain a sense of community among team members. It’s also more difficult for people to multi-task if they are visible on a screen, increasing the likelihood everyone will actively engage in the meeting.
3. Connect Individually
In addition to regular daily interactions, schedule weekly one-on-one video conferences with each team member to address items specific to their situations, reserving at least one hour for each discussion. Recognize that employees may have a whole new set of concerns because of the coronavirus, from personal and family health to financial fears to trying to oversee schooling for children who must now learn outside the classroom. Some employees also may be feeling lonely or depressed.
Offer emotional support by discussing non-work-related issues, like how employees and their families are adjusting to stay-at-home orders. Ask questions about their new work-from-home routines and brainstorm solutions to challenges they face. Don’t forget to look for ways you can continue helping employees accomplish their professional development and career goals. Building rapport has never been more important, as remote employees who enjoy close bonds with their managers will feel happier and less isolated on the job, even when they’re working at home.
You’ll still need to let employees know if they’re not meeting your expectations, just as you would in the usual work setting. You may need to explore whether work-at-home or other challenges are inhibiting progress and help the employee work through them. While the shift in work venue hasn’t changed the need for employees to be productive, it has altered a lot about how work gets done. Employees still should be expected to achieve their work goals, but managers should allow flexibility in how and when these tasks are accomplished.
4. Consistently Communicate
Regular interaction is particularly helpful under difficult circumstances. Hold calls or video conferences at set times, so people can anticipate the opportunity to connect with colleagues. Predictable communication practices help boost morale, prevent missed deadlines and avoid unexpected outcomes. They also give participants a sense of accomplishment and inclusion.
When work becomes more stressful than usual, managers must adapt the methods they use to help their workforces remain positive and productive. Effective communication and flexibility are especially important when employees are working remotely. Supervisors who support and encourage their teams in meaningful ways during this unprecedented global health crisis will be rewarded with higher employee productivity and engagement.